I am often curious about how particular foods are discovered and developed. Take haggis, for example, or lutefisk. How did people make these discoveries? Cheese making is another. Traditional rennet is found in the stomachs of unweaned calves, lambs and goats. Who thinks to isolate this, add it to milk or cream then set it in a cool, dark place until it hardens? Likewise, who thought to ferment tea?
Whoever developed it, kombucha, a fermented sweet tea, has a devoted following. Some of those devoted followers began brewing it in their homes. When demand for their kombucha spread outside their homes, they channeled their inner entrepreneurs and went into business. Three such businesses are Duluth Kombucha, Uffda Kombucha in Superior, and the combined businesses of Narrow Gate Foods and Kumbaya Kombucha in Thunder Bay.
Rachelle Rahn at Duluth Kombucha was drawn into the business in just such a manner. She moved to Minnesota from Arizona in 2006, and in 2013 purchased a house in Duluth. She quickly fell in love with Lake Superior and now considers the area her home. She started brewing kombucha when she was overworked and started getting stress colds. She wound up with more than she could consume and started offering it to her friends and family, who in turn offered it to their friends and family. Her business evolved from there.
The business officially began in 2016 with Rahn doing home deliveries and pop-up events around town. In 2018, Bent Paddle Brewing began selling Duluth Kombucha on tap in their new taproom. From there the business greatly expanded, and the kombucha can now be found on several tap lists in the area. In 2020 they opened their own taproom/kombuchary at 12 S. 15th Ave. East. The pandemic has restricted their activities at this location, but they do offer to-go cups and growlers of kombucha curbside and contactless deliveries on Saturdays. Once such activities are safe, they plan to offer brewing workshops, board game nights and simply provide a cozy place for a flight of kombucha and a chat with a friend.
They brew their kombucha in repurposed oak whiskey barrels sourced through Duluth Barrel Works. Most commercial brewing of kombucha is done in tanks similar to those used for brewing beer. They use fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs for flavoring and experiment with different flavors often. Some of their most popular flavors are Tread Gingerly with pineapple, ginger and turmeric, Mama Mia with watermelon and hibiscus, and Peach on Earth, with peaches and chai. They are continually developing seasonal flavors. Their teas for their sweet tea bases are supplied locally from Anahata Herbals. The sweet tea goes into the barrels with the SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) and is fermented for 10 to 24 days. They also sell brewing kits for the budding home brewer.
Colin Zervas and McKenna Dagger, owners of Uffda Kombucha, were coworkers at a group home in Duluth. They talked about wanting to create a business they could be proud of and serve the community. Dagger had learned about kombucha in 2015 and started brewing it in her tiny apartment. Zervas’ interest in fermentation comes from his background in micro-biology developed as a pre-med at St. Scholastica. Dagger’s parents and brothers own a barrel mill in Avon, Minn. As Zervas says, “Everything just sort of worked out.” Both are married and live in Duluth, and their families are very supportive of their business venture.
Their goal has been to produce kombuchas that can be enjoyed by experienced kombucha drinkers and newbies alike. They felt that some commercially produced kombuchas were not very drinkable, and that they could do better. Toward this end, Zervas is the fermentations scientist and Dagger does a lot of the flavoring. Their kombucha is fermented in oak barrels that are charred on the inside. According to Zervas, one can tell the difference between kombucha made in charred oak barrels and that which is fermented in glass. The carbon pulls out tannins and interacts with the cellulose in the wood, producing a mellower flavor. The wood allows air to pass through, producing gluconic acid, which apparently is a good thing. They now brew their kombucha in 30- and 50-gallon barrels.
Dagger tests her flavors on a small scale, using her friends and neighbors as her test tasters. Their most popular flavors are their raspberry and their honey ginger. Additional popular flavors include orange cranberry, blueberry acai, strawberry, and peach cobbler. More flavors will be coming in the summer months. They use organic and locally-sourced products whenever possible.
They sell growlers online at their website and deliver in the Duluth/Superior area. People can also order for pick-up at their brewery. Their kombucha can be found on tap at locations such as Ursa Minor, Twisted Pastries, Lake Avenue Café and 7 West at Miller Hill.
Nadia Kukkee labels herself as a serial entrepreneur. Thunder Bay born and raised, she is married with five children and nine businesses. “I’m a slow learner,” she says. She too began her kombucha journey as a home brewer. Eventually, her family grew tired of her home-based science experiments, and she had to move her brewing off site. She realized no one was brewing kombucha to scale in Thunder Bay and began marketing her Kumbaya Kombucha for Narrow Gate Foods at outdoor events. Her kombuchas were a hit, and she began selling them in grocery stores. As for her brewing philosophy, she uses wild fermentation and trusts the fermentation process. She goes by taste to determine when her batches are done, though she also tests the ph, sugar and alcohol levels.
The Narrow Gate products are bottled and sold in grocery stores and other retail locations. During the pandemic, online sales of her products have gone crazy. Narrow Gate currently has eight blends and also produces seasonal blends. In addition to kombucha, they sell kimchee, sour kraut, water kefir, and home brewing kits.
Kumbaya Kombucha uses a different blend of teas and a different business model, one that was greatly affected by the pandemic. They were recently purchased by Narrow Gate and rebranded as Kumbaya Foods. Their kombuchas can be ordered online and are available for non-contact pickup at their location on 4497 Oliver Road.
A passion for kombucha and an entrepreneurial spirit have motivated these brewers to share this fizzy and healthful drink. As a result, kombucha devotees are finding it easier to satisfy their cravings.